Pilot Evidence-Based Training: Situation Awareness

Evidence-Based Training (EBT) is a new training paradigm which is developing critical mass and leading to positive outcomes for Business Aviation operators. As part of his review of EBT competencies, Mario Pierobon considers situation awareness...

Mario Pierobon  |  26th February 2024
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    Mario Pierobon
    Mario Pierobon

    Mario Pierobon holds a Master’s Degree in Air Transportation Management from City University London,...

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    Why is situation awareness so important in pilots

    In December 1972 an Eastern Air Lines Lockheed L-1011 crashed seven miles west-northwest of Miami International Airport in Florida. Of the 163 passengers and 13 crewmembers aboard, 94 passengers and five crewmembers were killed. Two survivors later died from their injuries.

    The Lockheed L-1011 had missed its approach due to a suspected nose gear malfunction, climbed to 2,000 feet MSL, and proceeded westerly. The three flight crewmembers and a jump seat occupant became immersed in the malfunction, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) 1973 accident report.

    Consequently, the flight crew failed to monitor the flight instruments during the final four minutes of flight and didn’t detect an unexpected descent quickly enough to prevent impact with the ground, affirms the NTSB. Lack of situational awareness was therefore determined to be the probable cause of the tragedy.

    “Preoccupation with a malfunction of the nose landing gear position indicating system distracted the crew’s attention from the instruments and allowed the descent to go unnoticed”, NTSB reported.

    According to Mica R. Endsley in a 1995 journal article entitled ‘Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems’1, situation awareness can be described in terms of levels.

    Level 1 has to do with the perception of the environmental invariants in a volume of space and time, Level 2 with the comprehension of that information for meaningfulness, and Level 3 with the projection of the near future based on information presented.

    These three levels of situation awareness are important because each level has specific types of errors associated with it.

    Within Level 1, operatives must perceive the information around them to have improved their situation awareness. Therefore, the main error at this level would be the lack of information necessary to maintain situation awareness.

    The Eastern Air Lines L-1011 crash demonstrates how a lack of information can lead to poor quality Level 1 situation awareness and poor performance, notes Jason A. Gibson in his 1997 MSc thesis entitled ‘An investigation of situation awareness using aviation incident reports’2.

    “As the crew focused their attention on the landing gear light, no information was gathered regarding the slow descent of the plane. This narrowing of attention among crew members led to the poor quality of the situation awareness and the resulting disaster,” he states.

    A Definition of Situation Awareness in the Cockpit

    A professional cockpit environment is supported by effective situation awareness. ICAO Doc 9995 (Manual of Evidence-based training) defines this competency as when the pilot perceives and comprehends all the relevant information available and anticipates what could happen that may affect the operation.

    Situation awareness has the following behavioral indicators:

    • Accurately identifies and assesses the state of the aircraft and its systems.
    • Accurately identifies and assesses the aircraft’s vertical and lateral position, and its anticipated flight path.
    • Accurately identifies and assesses the general environment as it may affect the operation.
    • Keeps track of time and fuel.
    • Maintains awareness of the people involved in, or affected by, the operation and their capacity to perform as expected.
    • Accurately anticipates what could happen, plans, and stays ahead of the situation.
    • Develops effective contingency plans based upon potential threats.
    • Identifies and manages threats to the safety of the aircraft and people.
    • Recognizes and effectively responds to indications of reduced situation awareness.

    Using Technology to Enhance Pilot Situation Awareness

    With regards to situation awareness, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has published Advisory Circular AC 91-23 dealing with ADS-B for enhancing situational awareness, and CASA advises aircraft owners and pilots on enhancing their situation awareness during flight through use of ADS-B technology. These recommendations are useful for operationalization via training.

    Technology can enhance pilot situation awareness, CASA notes, “However, having an information-rich source of data on a traffic display or tablet can distract pilots from the critically important visual scan outside the aircraft. Pilots must be mindful of distraction and minimize the time spent ‘heads down’”.

    When pilots are using any traffic awareness system, they should utilize the information it provides to aid in sighting other aircraft, CASA says. 

    “Often, knowing where to look, both horizontally (direction) and/or vertically (up, down or at the same level) saves critical minutes compared with relying only on a full-sky scan.

    “However, it is essential that once the traffic alert has been announced, the pilot moves their eyes outside the aircraft to spot the traffic that the system has alerted. No ADS-B IN traffic awareness device is intended to operate without effective, external visual sighting.”

    In Summary...

    Within this feature, we have reviewed situation awareness in terms of its levels, its behavior indicators, and how it can be operationalized through training. Ultimately, situation awareness is a core competency that should be thoroughly explored, emphasized, and developed under the EBT programs of Business Aviation operators.


    1. Endsley, M. (1995a). Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors. 37, 32-64.

    2. Jason Alan Gibson, an investigation of situation awareness using aviation incident reports, 1997, https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/tr/pdf/ADA326836.pdf

    Read other articles in this series:

    Managing Pilot Workload

    Pilot Problem Solving & Decision-Making

    Core EBT Competencies: Leadership & Teamwork

    Aircraft Flight Path Management - Automation

    Aircraft Flight Path Management - Manual Control

    Flight Training: Why Communication is a Core Skill

    A Flight Department's Overview of Evidence-Based Training

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